Attacks in Brussels: They nailed us

I know why I'm thinking about nails today. I can still remember myself as a little kid watching my dad, the competent Clarence E. Scharber, pound minute-sized nails onto planks of wood or into a wall -- just right, deep enough, centered and straight. What a feat!

In April 1984, my first Holy Week in Austin, Texas, I remember the clang of a large spike dropping to the bottom of a galvanized pail as each of us entered the University Catholic Center on the University of Texas-Austin campus for the Good Friday afternoon service. It was a ritual I'd never seen or heard before, but it seemed to fit well into Texas Longhorn territory. Scores of students dropped their noisy spikes deep into the pail's recesses inside the auditorium-sized chapel.

Over coffee at a favorite Tenafly, N.J., diner, I thumbed through the New York Post, which comes with coffee at the counter. In Wednesday's edition was a photo of a chest X-ray from one of Tuesday's bomb victims at Brussels airport. The nail from the bomb was embedded in his or her chest cavity, like a large piece of flint on the right outside wall of the rib cage. Almost as strategically placed as my dear dad's pounding.

I know Brussels Zaventem Airport almost as well as Newark's Liberty Airport. I lived in Belgium for 11 years and flew there many times since returning to the U.S. in 1984. The metro stop where another bomb burst Tuesday was one I used often when working as a freelance journalist at European Community headquarters nearby.

Yes, they've nailed us, these bitter boys -- and perhaps a few girls too, who lived around Brussels in its conurbations of Schaerbeek, Molenbeek and maybe even in Ledeberg, near Ghent, the area where my Belgian parents-in-law saw a large expansion of Turkish and North African workers and their families moving in during the 1960s, 1970s and after. These were the gastarbeiters (guest workers) who came first to work in the chemical plants and textile mills of Flanders in northern Belgium and Wallonia in southern Belgium.

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By the time I arrived in 1973, Islam was the nation's second largest religion in a Catholic land. Cafes and pubs frequently carried signs in at least two languages asserting that no dogs or North Africans were allowed inside. The suspected Brussels terrorists were said to have North African ancestry.

Still guest workers had all the privileges afforded by Belgium's largesse -- free education, excellent medical and transport services, good benefits if one had a job, then lost it. But immigrants lived in large family settings, crowded into the poorest districts of the nation's biggest cities -- Brussels, Antwerp, Charleroi, Liege and Ghent. Rarely were they accepted even when a resident in the country for two and three generations, with many of them learning to speak French or Dutch reasonably well.

Not fitting into a culture and land not your own is never, ever a reason for terrorism against your host nation. At least a tenth of Belgium's 11.2 million inhabitants are foreigners, many of them employed at the European Community, most of them grateful to occupy the capitol of Europe.

But feelings of alienation and lack of work prospects for many immigrants can help explain the attraction of jihadism and of radicalization promoted by Islamic State on the Internet and in person as recruits travelled to Syria, Iraq and Libya and later apparently blended easily with arriving migrants and refugees from those lands fleeing to a better life in Europe.

How do we remove the nail -- the shrapnel of human enmity deep at the heart of our warring societies? How do we not live in fear and loathing of one another? The Good Friday service with its historic memory of nailing, then death, also points to forgiveness.

It is not an easy message. My late husband, although devout, refused to go to church on Good Friday. "I don't like how the story ends," he used to say.

I don't like the way the one in Brussels is unfolding and what it portends for other cities and citizens elsewhere. Can we all make room for one another, respect one another -- particularly our differences -- and raise up non-violent leaders of reconciliation like Jesus, Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr.? Or did each of these men die for nothing? I hope and pray not.

[Patricia Lefevere is a longtime NCR contributor.]


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